Harriet Beecher Stowe seeks refuge in Paris from the notoriety of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
In 1852, a new novel titled Uncle Tom’s Cabin by an unknown author from Maine caused the greatest stir of anything published in America since Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. In the first year, 300,000 copies were sold in the United States alone. By the spring of 1853, the book had become a sensation in Britain as well, and its author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, unknown no longer, was on her way to England in the “hope of doing good” for the cause against slavery, as she told her friend Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts.
In Britain, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was acclaimed for accomplishing greater good for humanity than any other book of fiction. Over half a million British women had signed a petition against slavery. In Paris, where the Stowes were also headed, publishers were still scrambling to finish translations, but the novelist George Sand, writing in La Presse, had already called Mrs. Stowe “a saint. Yes—a saint!”
Traveling with her were her husband, the preacher-scholar Calvin Stowe, her younger brother, Charles Beecher, also a preacher, and three of her in-laws, but none of her six children. They crossed on the steamship Canada, and for Hatty, as she was known in the family, it was, at age 41, her first time at sea.
The author’s British tour was long and exhausting. Having taken no part in the antislavery movement prior to writing her book, she suddenly found herself the most influential voice speaking on behalf of the enslaved people of America. From the day her ship docked at Liverpool, crowds awaited her at every stop of the tour through England and Scotland. Husband Calvin was so undone by it all that he gave up and went home.
By the time Hatty reached Paris, in the first week of June, she craved only some peace and privacy, and wanted her presence in the city kept as quiet as possible. Rather than staying at one of the fashionable hotels, she moved into a private mansion on the narrow rue de Verneuil in the Faubourg Saint-Germain, as the guest of an American friend, Maria Chapman, known as “the soul” of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society.
“At last I have come into a dreamland,” Hatty wrote. “I am released from care. I am unknown, unknowing.”
With her time all her own, she used it to see everything possible, starting the next day, a Sunday, with church service at the Madeleine, her first “Romish” service ever. She usually went accompanied by her brother Charles, whose energetic, good-humored companionship she relished. For nearly three weeks she moved about Paris unnoticed, a small, fragile-looking woman of no apparent importance—“a little bit of a woman,” as she said, “about as thin and dry as a pinch of snuff, never very much to look at in my best days.”
She was tireless and saw everything that so many Americans had seen before her, but took time to look hard and to think about what she saw. Hatty was a natural “observer,” wrote Charles, “always looking around on everything.” And for all that others had had to say on the same subjects, there was a freshness, an originality in what she wrote.
She loved Paris at once. She needed no coaching, no interlude in which to acclimate herself. She felt immediately at home, and better just for being among the people. “My spirits always rise when I get among the French.”
The days were unseasonably warm, the temperature 80 degrees in the shade, as she recorded in her journal, describing the pleasure of sitting beneath the trees in the Garden of the Tuileries, observing the human show.
Whole families come, locking up their door, bringing the baby, work, dinner, or lunch, take a certain number of chairs and spend the day. As far as the eye can reach you see a multitude seated, as if in church, with other multitudes moving to and fro, while boys and girls without number are frolicking, racing, playing ball, driving hoop, etc., but contriving to do it without making a hideous racket.
How French children were taught to play and enjoy themselves without disturbing everyone else was a mystery to her.
There were grayheaded old men and women, and invalids. And there were beautiful demoiselles working worsted, embroidery, sewing; men reading papers, and, in fact, people doing everything they would do in their own parlors. All were graceful, kind, and obliging; not a word nor an act of impoliteness or indecency.
No wonder the French adore Paris, she thought.
Pausing for an ice at a garden café at the Palais Royal after a long day, she was delighted to find so many others doing the same. No one recognized the plain little American or paid her any attention—just as she wished.
Another day, after climbing with Charles up the spiral staircase to the top of the Arc de Triomphe, she made no mention of the nearly 300 steps, only the thrill of the view. But, whatever the vantage point, she refused to let slip from her mind how much might lay out of sight. “All is vivacity, gracefulness, and sparkle to the eye, but, ah, what fires are smoldering below.”
Seeing Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, who had recently declared himself Emperor Napoleon III, and his wife, Eugénie, ride by in their carriage on the boulevard des Italiens, Hatty thought he looked stiff and homely, she beautiful but sad.
Until the evening her host Maria Chapman held one of her salons on the rue de Verneuil, setting out cake and tea for a gathering of Parisian friends, neither Hatty nor Charles had ventured to say much in French. Charles decided to throw caution to the winds and “talked away, right and left, and right and wrong, too,” as he wrote, “a perfect steeple chase, jumping over ditches and hedges, genders and cases…nouns, adjectives, and terminations of all sorts.” The guests were amazed and delighted, as was his sister. “Poor Hatty!” he wrote. “She could not talk French, except to say, ‘Oui, madame. Non, monsieur.’ ”
The attention paid to her at this and other small gatherings by those who knew who she was, was “very touching,” Charles thought. “She is made to feel perfectly free….And the regard felt for her is manifested in a way…so considerate that she is rather strengthened by it than exhausted.”
What was the mysterious allure of Paris, she wondered. What was its hold on the heart and imagination? Surely the “life artery” was the ever flowing Seine, she mused one day when crossing the Pont d’Austerlitz. The years she had spent in her 20s and early 30s in Cincinnati, living in the presence of the Ohio and later writing about it in her book, had given her a strong inner sense of the river as a divider, an open highway, a measure of the turning of the seasons, of life. But the Seine, embellished with such bridges and show of monumental architecture, was like no river she had ever known. “And there is no scene like this, as I gaze upward and downward, comprehending in a glance the immense panorama of art and architecture—life, motion, enterprise, pleasure, pomp, and power.”
As the instinct of the true Parisienne teaches her the mystery of setting off the graces of her person by the fascinations of dress, so the instinct of the nation to set off the city by the fascinations of architecture and embellishment.
Gazing upward within the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Hatty felt a “sublimity” she found impossible to analyze or express. It was a long way from the kitchen table in Brunswick, Maine, where she had written Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a baby in a clothesbasket at her feet.
She had become increasingly interested in art. So the Louvre occupied the greater part of her time. She knew nothing of the “rules of painting,” as she said, but confident in what she knew of the art of literature, she compared the painters who most strongly appealed to her to one or another of her favorite writers. Rembrandt struck her as very like Hawthorne, for example.
He chooses simple and everyday objects, and so arranges light and shadow as to give them a somber richness and a mysterious gloom. The House of Seven Gables is a succession of Rembrandt pictures done in words instead of oils. Now this pleases us because our life really is a haunted one. The simplest thing in it is a mystery, the invisible world always lies round us like a shadow.
There were no paintings in the museum to which she returned as often as those by Rembrandt.
Rubens—“the great, joyous, full-souled, all powerful Rubens!”—whom she loved no less, was like Shakespeare, she decided. Yet Rubens bothered her. He was full of “triumphant, abounding life, disgusting and pleasing, making me laugh and making me angry, defying me to dislike him.”
Like Shakespeare, he forces you to accept and forgive a thousand excesses, and uses his own faults as musicians use discords only to enhance the perfection of harmony. There certainly is some use even in defects. A faultless style sends you to sleep. Defects rouse and excite sensibility to seek and appreciate excellences.
Walking back and forth the length of the Grande Galerie, pausing to look at pictures from a distance and up close, she found few “glorious enough to seize and control my whole being.” Too many artists “painted with dry eyes and cool hearts,” she thought, “thinking only of mixing their colors and the jugglery of their art, thinking little of heroes, faith, love, or immortality.”
For the large works of Jacques-Louis David hanging with other French paintings in the Salon Carré, she had little use. The problem with David was that he had neither heart nor soul. His paintings were but the “driest imitation” of the classics.
She saw French painting as representative of the “great difficulty and danger” of French life in general:
…that passion for the outward and visible, which all their education, all arrangements of their social life, everything in their art and literature, tends continually to cultivate and increase. Hence they have become the leaders of the world in what I should call the minor artistics—all those particulars which render life beautiful. Hence there are more pretty pictures and popular lithographs from France than from any other country in the world, but it produces very little of the deepest and highest style of art.
But there was one stunning exception, she was quick to concede, The Raft of the Medusa, the tremendous (16-by-231/2 feet) dark canvas by Théodore Géricault showing the tragic victims of an 1816 disaster, when the ship Medusa went aground off the coast of Senegal. There are no heroes on the crude raft in Géricault’s wild, dark, unforgiving sea. At least two of the figures in the foreground are already dead. Those still alive cling to one another, and the whole thrust of the pyramid of their bodies is to the upper right-hand corner, where the strongest of the living, a black man, waves a shirt or rag toward one dim semblance of hope, the mere speck of a ship on the far horizon.
If any great work in the Louvre had the power to “seize and control” her whole being, she wrote, it was this. She spent a full hour in front of it.
I gazed until all surrounding objects disappeared, and I was alone in the wide Atlantic. Those transparent emerald waves are no fiction. They leap madly, hungering for their prey. That distended sail is filled with the lurid air. The dead man’s foot hangs off in the seething brine a stark reality. What a fixed gaze of despair in that father’s stony eye! What a group of deathly living ones around that frail mast, while one with intense eagerness flutters a signal to some far-described bark! Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner has no colors more fearfully faithful to his theme….And there is no voice that can summon the distant flying sail!
Here was the work of a man “who had not seen human life and suffering merely on the outside, but had felt in the very depths of his soul the surging and earthquake of those mysteries of passion and suffering which underlie our whole existence in this world.” She was sure no more powerful piece had ever been painted. It was as though this one picture had been worth the whole trip to France.
After not quite three weeks she and her party were on their way to the Swiss Alps and Germany, but soon were back in Paris for a longer stay. She had been thinking about the human need for beauty and how during her childhood in Connecticut she had been starved for that side of life. She felt she had been senselessly, cruelly cheated. “With all New England’s earnestness and practical efficiency, there is a long withering of the soul’s more ethereal part—a crushing out of the beautiful—which is horrible.”
Children are born there with a sense of beauty equally delicate with any in the world in whom it dies a lingering death of smothered desire and pining, weary starvation. I know because I have felt it.
It was a severe indictment of her own upbringing, indeed of American life, and not until she came to Paris had it struck her so emphatically.
More important was the realization that the beauty of Paris was not just one of the pleasures of the city, but it possessed a magically curative power to bring one’s own sense of beauty back to life. “One in whom this sense had long been repressed, in coming into Paris, feels a rustling and a waking within him, as if the soul were crying to unfold her wings.” Instead of scorning the lighthearted, beauty-loving French, she decided, Americans ought to recognize how much was to be learned from them.
David McCullough is the author of 10 books, including 1776 and the Pulitzer Prize–winning Truman and John Adams.
Originally published in the August 2011 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.